Le castor fait tout

I wonder if any of the other Macbloggers have been straining at their imaginations trying to find a PG-rated way to talk about the name change over at Canada’s second-oldest magazine. It took me a while to remember that General Semantics has an answer for this. So: The Beaver, now to become Canada’s History, was named in 1920 for what we’ll call beaver1, the rodent Castor canadensis. The periodical was obliged to make the change because of jokes about and search-engine confusion with beaver2, a colloquialism for an anatomical neighbourhood in the human female.

Beaver1 is, for my money, the best of the popular symbols of Canadian nationhood. Unlike the maple leaf, which is utterly unknown west of Lake of the Woods, the beaver1 is ubiquitous throughout Canada, yet is integral to our history as seen from most regional standpoints. (I was well into my twenties before I saw an actual maple leaf. I had always assumed that the silhouette on the flag was heavily stylized; when I saw just how similar the real thing was to the icon, I almost fell down laughing—partly at my own ignorance.) Perhaps the beaver1 and the maple leaf are best understood as representing “Hamiltonian” and “Jeffersonian” aspects of the Empire of the St. Lawrence, the one signifier standing for the agrarian past of our dreams—hot sweets, home cooking, big families pounding taps into trees at sugaring-off time—and the other representing progress, engineering, and the industrial virtues.

It would be a great shame indeed if one pole of this dialectic were broken and lost just because of the beaver2 metaphor. I almost feel that The Beaver, as in the magazine, has been derelict in giving up the fight. But it’s not my money. The brand could perhaps have stood up to any amount of silent snickering, but no media organ can afford to offer confusion to search engines and spam filters now. Google is a powerful, underestimated force for prosaicness: just ask any sub-editor who’s been ordered to re-do a charmingly cryptic headline and get rid of the cute irony.

As Google gets smarter, or when some more subtle Nietzschean über-engine displaces it, such problems should disappear. Natural-language computing will, sooner or later, be able to tell whether a searcher or questioner is concerned with beaver1 or beaver2. The funny thing is, the beaver2 metaphor may have long since disappeared by then, and the story of why The Beaver had to change its name may be an incomprehensible piece of trivia as far as the future is concerned. “Beaver2” is already an outmoded vulgarism, something I would expect to hear spilling out of the mouth of a person my father’s age rather than a 30-year-old.

And we all know why: beavers2 aren’t seen in photographs or on video with their defining pelt very often anymore. Feminine depilation has become the norm—certainly not in everyday life, but in the visual culture. As a consequence, in all-male environments of the sort signified by the “locker room”, the favourite metaphors of today emphasize different sensory aspects of the part in question. This is true even where the context involves a strictly visual encounter: the beaver2 is not only called that because of its fur, but also because a gentleman is invariably excited to have caught a glimpse of one, as it were, in the wild. (Think about Jim Bouton’s discussion in Ball Four of the baseball player’s “beaver2 shooting” hobby.)

While reports of the extinction of the beaver2 are much exaggerated, North America’s experience of sudden shifts toward leg and armpit depilation suggest that women will change their grooming habits to match the visual culture. And not in the “long run”, either, but in a matter of a few years. There is no evidence that there will ever be any mass anti-depilation backlash. If you are a traditionalist sort who has been waiting around for one, you have already been waiting quite a while. The arc of history bends toward bareness. (Indeed, it does so even when it comes to men’s bodies.)

So it seems near-certain that we will, one day, be able to speak of the beaver1 without the suppressed giggles. But will it still be associated with Canada, or will the symbol have been irretrievably relegated to the semiotic landfill?

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